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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkTravel & Outdoors 

Bird of a Different Feather a New Discovery For Science

February 22, 2019

A recent observation at Vallarta Botanical Garden may be the first-ever documentation of a spectacular color anomaly of the Yellow-winged Cacique. (Photos: Greg R. Homel,

Related article: Unique Bird Spotted at the Vallarta Botanical Garden

First-time visitors to Puerto Vallarta are quickly dazzled by the region's abundance of birdlife and all of its colorful glory.

An adult male yellow-winged Cacique with normal plumage at Vallarta Botanical Garden. Photo: Greg R. Homel
The Yellow-winged Cacique (Cassiculus melanicterus) a locally prolific species, is one that sticks out right away and neophytes to Mexican birding are often quick to point their fingers toward them shouting, "What's that?" Their brilliant yellow over jet black is indeed an attention demanding combination, and the male's crests are reminiscent of a rastaman's dreadlocks, or the headdress of a Caribbean chieftain. Add to this their raucous calls and highly entertaining social behavior, and you get a sense for why they can be definite crowd-pleasers.

For most serious local bird enthusiasts though, Caciques are a bit too ubiquitous here in the Puerto Vallarta Region to distract these focused naturalists from quests to sight the seldom-seen or rare - at least this has been the case until now.

Early this year, birders visiting the Vallarta Botanical Garden first noticed what looked very much like a Yellow-winged Cacique, except the plumage was strikingly different... this novel new bird has a yellow head and crest! Since the normal head and neck coloration is completely black this has caused a sensation among the birding community and has researchers checking the records to see if this has ever before been documented. So far the discovery of this spectacular color anomaly appears to be a first for science.

This freak of nature has bewildered more than a few birders; each offering a new hypothesis: Is it a hybrid? An aberrant albino? Does it exhibit what's known as Xanthochromism (replacement of normal color by yellow pigment)? Nobody seemed to know. Research on this subject, of particular fascination to bird photographers, reveals that many birds mislabeled as Xanthrochroistic are actually what is known as Schizochroic (not to be confused with Schizophrenic!)

The Vallarta Botanical Garden's new resident schizochroic Yellow-winged Cacique. Note the pale legs and compare that to the normal dark pigmentation seen in the photo above. All photos courtesy of Greg R. Homel
A.O. Gross, in his 1965 paper, Melanism in North American Birds, writes "...[in] non-melanic schizochroic individuals, the absence of melanin in their plumage leaves caratenoid pigments, which might be yellow or red, phenotypically." This applies to members of the American Blackbird family (Icteridae), especially, and caciques happen to be members of that family.

The Yellow-winged Cacique is a "near-endemic" species meaning its range is almost exclusively limited to the political border of Mexico. For this reason it is also sometimes referred to as the "Mexican Cacique" but in this case its range does extend down a little into Guatemala as well.

Here in the Puerto Vallarta region, the species is relatively common and abundant, but the new schizochroic specimen has so far only been observed within the boundaries of the Vallarta Botanical Garden. And one hardly needs to be a birding expert to have a chance of seeing him there. Just go to the balcony of the Garden's Hacienda de Oro Visitor Center between noon and 1 pm when staff stocks the bird feeder. Within minutes, a mixed flock - typically dominated by Caciques and San Blas Jays - will descend upon the smorgasbord of tropical fruit and nuts.

On most days, the yellow-headed marvel will make an appearance and take his turn picking out his favorite treats. What do you think about us naming him Amarillero? (That's the closest thing we could come up with in Spanish along the lines of, "Old Yeller.")

Interested in seeing this new discovery and other fascinating birds firsthand? The upcoming Vallarta Bird and Nature Festival (March 8-10th) is a great opportunity to do so among fellow bird enthusiasts as well as bird photographers and experts from all over North America. Also, Greg R. Homel leads birding expeditions and bird photography courses all over Mexico - and the rest of the planet for that matter. You may contact Greg by email at birdingadventures(at), or visit his website at

About the Authors

Greg R. Homel is an ornithologist, award-winning international nature photojournalist, documentary film producer, and lecturer. He lives and works from his home within the magnificent Los Padres National Forest, California, USA (home of the California Condor) and from his second home in Puerto Vallarta. A birder-naturalist since childhood, Greg founded Natural Elements Productions in 1986 and Natural Encounters Birding Tours shortly thereafter. Now he travels the globe on a full-time basis in search of rare and little-known birds and other wildlife. Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta in particular, take a special place in Greg's heart and mind as a birder and environmentalist. His website dedicated to the Puerto Vallarta Region is and his primary website is

Neil Gerlowski has served as the Executive Director of the Vallarta Botanical Garden (VBG) since 2010. He helped form this garden's international Science Advisory Board, which among other activities, is working to study and document the diverse native plant life of the VBG's forest preserve as well as participate in plant research elsewhere in Mexico and abroad. Neil Gerlowski has a Master's of Arts in Teaching from the University of New Hampshire (2001) and successfully completed Longwood Gardens' Fellows Program in 2018.

Visit the internationally famous Vallarta Botanical Garden located just 30 minutes south of Old Town at Km. 24 on Highway 200 and easily accessible by public transportation and taxi. This 64 acre wildlife preserve and botanical garden have something fun for everyone. Over 200 species of birds have been observed on the Garden's grounds. Don't forget to bring your swimsuit for a refreshing dip in the jungle river. See plantings of vanilla, chocolate, and hundreds of other botanical delights! Authentic Mexican Cuisine is served in the Hacienda de Oro Restaurant from 10 am to 5 pm. The Garden is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm (closed Mondays from April 1 to December 1). Garden admission is just $200 pesos. For more information, call (322) 223-6182 or visit

Click HERE to learn more about Vallarta Botanical Gardens.